This time last year, Rebel fans were wondering if Houston Nutt and Kent Austin could co-exist, how well Jevan Snead would respond to his third offensive system in as many years, and how productive his supporting cast would be.
After one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history, the Rebels face an entirely new set of questions. Can the Rebels live up to the hype they are receiving this preseason? Five of college football's most trusted prognosticators (Athlon, Lindy's, Phil Steele, ESPN.com, and Sporting News) have placed Ole Miss in their preseason Top Ten forecasts. Ole Miss hasn't been mentioned with names like Southern California, Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama in over four decades. How will the Rebels respond to being favored in every game they play?
Another question mark lies in the gaping holes left by Michael Oher and Peria Jerry, two players that were taken in succession by Baltimore and Atlanta, respectively, in April's draft. Bradley Sowell looks to step in at the vacant left tackle position, but don't sleep on incoming freshman Bobby Massie, who has the talent to be a star in this conference. A number of players – including sophomore Jerrell Powe – will look to take over Jerry's spot at defensive tackle.
Lastly, this year's team will surely be dealing with a few psychological factors that go beyond anything that can be prepared for in the weight room and indoor practice facility. Ole Miss is the only team to have never represented the SEC West in the SEC Championship game. Because of this, many are hesitant to name the Rebels as the clear-cut favorite to win the West, as evidenced by the Rebels being projected to finish third at SEC Media Days and also by Paul Finebaum's provocative, scintillating, eloquent editorial that saw him coming to the profound realization that – despite the Rebels' talent and coaching – Ole Miss cannot win the West simply because "they are Ole Miss."
You may not find mind-numbingly imaginative gems like that in this editorial, but you will find an in-depth analysis of the 2009 Ole Miss football team. In the first installment of this two part series, I will break down the Ole Miss offense, led by Offensive Coordinator Kent Austin.
Last year, Ole Miss came into the season with a sophomore transfer, a junior quarterback with no career starts, and a true freshman. After a dismal offensive season under the previous staff that saw the passing attack hit rock bottom and continue to excavate, improvement was all but assured. But with a new quarterback and a new system, even the most optimistic Rebel fan could not have predicted the success Ole Miss would have through the air; Jevan Snead threw for 2,762 yards last season (tops among returning starters in the SEC) and 26 touchdowns, while also rushing for three more scores and boasting an impressive 8.4 yards per attempt. Overall, Ole Miss finished fourth in passing offense behind Florida, Georgia, and Arkansas – a radical improvement after Seth Adams and Brent Schaeffer together managed just 19 total touchdowns (17 throwing, 2 rushing) the year before.
After a pedestrian first six games that saw Snead throw ten touchdowns and ten interceptions, Jevan settled in and finished the year by throwing 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions. After the midpoint of the season, Snead's touchdown to interception ratio was better than 5:1, an astounding figure that was easily one of the best in the Nation over that span. So why was Snead an average quarterback over the first half of the season, yet one of the best in the country over the latter half plus Ole Miss' bowl game (a seven game slate that included Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, and Texas Tech)? To quote the star signal caller, "I think part of [my slow start] was due to my lack of experience. You have to grow as a quarterback and you should be playing better at the end of the season.
While he did cut down on his interception total dramatically in the second half of the season, whether or not Snead can avoid costly turnovers for an entire year remains to be seen. Snead tossed five interceptions (against one touchdown) and lost one fumble in his two games against Vanderbilt and South Carolina, both of which were decided by one possession. Snead's decision making got much better over the course of the year and he also looked sharp this spring, but the defenses he'll be seeing this year now know exactly who he is and have a year's worth of film to help them prepare for him. Snead can make just about any throw on the field, but it is essential that he plays within himself and lets the talent around him make plays like he did over the second half of the season last year.
With all of that said, Snead's health is vital to Ole Miss' success in 2009, and the loss of All-American left tackle Michael Oher puts his blind side in jeopardy (more on that later). The junior I mentioned earlier is Billy Tapp, now a senior, who will battle RS-Freshman Nathan Stanley for the backup quarterback position. While Stanley is – by most accounts – a very talented young quarterback that is very capable of making many throws, Tapp's experience may give him the edge in case Snead gets injured.
2009 Signing class impact – Four-star quarterback Raymond Cotton being "privately committed" to Ole Miss was one of the worst kept secrets in Rebel recruiting circles last spring. While his athletic ability cannot be questioned, his quarterback skills appear to be a little raw. Unless an injury occurs or a special package calls for Cotton to see the field, I expect him and walk-on Clayton Moore to take much needed redshirts this season.
Running backs and Fullbacks
The Ole Miss rushing attack produced big numbers and some intriguing statistics that point to very bright future for the Rebel backfield. Ole Miss finished second in the SEC in rushing yards per game returns players that accounted for 97% of their rushing production. Over 40% of the Ole Miss rushing production came from sophomores and true freshmen.
Ole Miss' leading rusher was Dexter McCluster, who finished with 655 yards and a 6.0 yard average, but most of those carries came from the Wild Rebel formation. Senior Cordera Eason got more carries than anyone else and performed well (4.6 YPC), but sophomore Brandon Bolden (5.5 YPC) is penciled in as this year's starter. Bolden was also used in the Wild Rebel formation in short yardage situations. Being the starter isn't as important as making the most of every carry, however, when your team has such a talented stable of backs. Behind Eason and Bolden are a couple of sophomores – Enrique Davis and Devin Thomas – with a lot of potential. Davis was the prized recruit of the 2008 signing class, but had some trouble blocking and adjusting to the level of competition. Both of those problems are to be expected of most freshmen, however. Devin Thomas played sparingly last season and wasn't always healthy, but he showed a good deal of explosiveness in the Grove Bowl on a 53-yard touchdown run. Freshman Andre Sterling may also be in the mix some this fall.
Ole Miss lost starting fullback Jason Cook, but senior Andy Hartmann, junior Derrick Davis, and redshirt freshman H.R. Greer return. The starting job will likely go to Hartmann, but Davis showed that he is capable of sneaking out of the backfield and catching a couple of touchdowns last year. It will be interesting to see if Ole Miss utilizes its fullbacks more in the passing game this year, which is something Houston Nutt did at Arkansas quite often.
2009 Signing class impact – Ole Miss signed several backs in the 2009 class, but they will have to be pretty impressive to see the field as true freshman considering the depth and talent already on campus. Tim Simon of Cordova, Alabama, ranks third all-time among Alabama high school RBs with over 8,500 yards (rushing for close to 3,000 last year alone), but he may end up as a linebacker at Ole Miss. Athlete Korvic Neat may see some time in the Wild Rebel formation, but he and Rodney Scott (another talented newcomer) will probably be redshirted. Gabriel Hunter is thought to be a grey shirt candidate, and Stephen Houston is more than likely JUCO or Prep school bound.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Shay Hodge finished the 2008 season tied for first in the SEC with eight touchdown receptions. He will begin the 2009 season as the SEC's active career leader in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns. Hodge and the aforementioned McCluster tied for the team lead in receptions last year (44), and will both need to have another great year to help make up for the loss of Mike Wallace (20.1 YPC, 7 TDs). Juniors Markeith Summers and Lionel Breaux will also see their roles expanded. Breaux was Ole Miss' fourth leading receiver last year, and Summers showed some playmaking ability in the spring game with a 70-yard touchdown reception. Sophomore Andrew Harris will also be expected to take a step forward, as will redshirt freshman Melvin Harris. Both are tall – Andrew is 6'3", Melvin is 6'6" – receivers that will fight for jump balls, but both must become more consistent (and Melvin must remain healthy). It will also be interesting to see where Jacarious Lucas, a tall and lanky senior, fits into the equation.
Ole Miss didn't throw to the tight end very much in 2008, but Gerald Harris had a break out game in the Cotton Bowl, catching two touchdowns. He returns for his senior season and could see his role expanded. He'll be backed up by redshirt freshmen E.J. Epperson and Ferbia Allen.
2009 Signing class impact – Five star wide receiver Patrick Patterson has just as good a chance to make an impact on the Rebels' 2009 season as anyone they signed last February. If no one currently on campus emerges as a jump ball threat, then Patterson could easily fill that role with his 6'2" frame. Ja-Mes Logan is another tall and athletic receiver, but at 185 pounds he'll probably need a redshirt year to put some weight on his tall frame. Terrell Grant is already enrolled and could be the sleeper of the class. Tight end Zaccheus Mason is an impressive athlete with a lot of potential, but he has eligibility issues and may find a home at left tackle once he finally makes it on campus.
All eyes will be on redshirt sophomore Bradley Sowell as he looks to take over Michael Oher's job of protecting Jevan Snead's blind side. Sowell certainly looks the part at 6'7" and 310 pounds, and did begin to come on strong towards the end of the spring. However, left tackle may be the second most important position on the field for Ole Miss this year, as one misstep could lead to a hard hit and an injury to Jevan Snead, which could spell disaster for the Rebels' season. The other tackle spot will be manned by 1st team All-SEC selection John Jerry, a 6'5", 350 lb. senior from Batesville, MS, that will more than likely be selected in the first three rounds in next year's NFL Draft.
The guard spots should go to senior Reid Neely (6'6", 310 lbs.) and sophomore Rishaw Johnson (6'4", 295 lbs.), with the former being on the left side and the latter on the right. The center position will be locked down by senior Daverin Geralds, one of the more underrated players from last year's team. Sophomore Alex Washington and junior college transfer Logan Claire will provide depth at tackle, while freshman A.J. Hawkins and senior Brandon Green will see some time at the guard spots. Green may also play some at center as he and senior Mark Jean-Louis will back up Geralds. Redshirt freshman Josh Tatum and junior Don Mosley may also be in the mix for some playing time throughout the season if injuries arise. Also, many of the players on the offensive line can play multiple positions; it'll be interesting to see just how Coach Markuson uses the players available to him this season.
2009 Signing class impact – Highly touted offensive tackle Bobby Massie (6'8", 330 lbs.) may very well take over the left tackle spot at some point during the season if he makes it on campus and adjusts to the system and level of play quickly. If nothing else, Massie will provide quality depth at a position that sorely needs it, and he also push starter Bradley Sowell to become a better player. The Rebels also signed Evan Swindall, a grey shirt candidate that will help out at the center position next year, after Geralds, Green, and Jean-Louis all graduate. Ole Miss also signed a pair of high school tackles in Emmanuel McCray and Michael Brown, who will both probably be redshirted next season.
Ole Miss has proven players all over the field this year. While the offensive line and depth at receiver are still causes for concern, this year's Ole Miss team will have just as much offensive talent as any team they line up against in the regular season. The Rebels have more skill players with game breaking speed and talent then they have had in many years, and it never hurts to have a creative Offensive Coordinator that knows how to get them open and an experienced quarterback that knows how to get them the ball.
It's very important that the Rebels avoid injuries (especially on the offensive line) and limit turnovers. If they can accomplish those two things, then the their offensive firepower will be enough to keep them in every game.